Monday, September 17, 2012

...because everybody loves a good train wreck...

I really should hate it. The world doesn't need one more reason to stereotype southerners. The world doesn't need one more reality show in which the only thing real is the sheer stupidity of the subject matter. We're (collectively) dumb enough. We don't need one more thing to suck I.Q.'s right out of our skulls. Besides, there's something quite freakish about 6 and 7 year-old "beauty queens." Seriously, they make my skin crawl. I really, REALLY should hate it...and I do. The problem is, I can't quit watching it....I just can't.

As a child, I used to go with my uncle to visit an old man that lived way off in the woods somewhere in Dawson County, Georgia. I mean you drove down some dirt road for a LONG time before you came to this house that he had built with his wife back when God was a little boy. The man couldn't read a word or write his name down on a piece of paper. But we used to sit there for hours listening to him rant about everything from politics to religion to snakes to possums to women to blueberries. Yep, blueberries. The man loved blueberries almost as much as he loved his wife and he had blueberry bushes all over the place. Some of the blueberry bushes had names (I'm not making this up.) The only name I remember was the one that was planted near his well - he named it "Tina" (he pronounced it "Teener.") Before we left his house he always gave us a basket of blueberries and would tell us to "keep our nose clean." I was pretty much afraid of the old guy. One time, on the way home from one of these visits, I asked my uncle why we always went to visit this very strange person. He said "Because he's a mess, that's why." I still didn't understand. "We visit him because he's a mess?" "Yep," Uncle Ralph said, "he's a mess and it does you good to listen to a mess sometimes." I asked him why my aunt never came with us when we went to visit him. He said "She thinks he's crazy as hell and she's afraid of him." (ok, so I wasn't the only one...)

My dear Uncle Ralph spent a great deal of time broadening the horizons of this kid that lived in suburban Atlanta where most of the houses and most of the people looked just alike. I now realize how much I learned from being to exposed to people and places with which I had NOTHING in common...even when they were a mess. And now as I stare down half a century of life in this world, I'm completely and totally addicted to watching anything that's a "mess." And Lord HELP, this Honey Boo-Boo thing is a mess in every sense of the word. And it's not so much the child that's at the center of this spectacle that fascinates's the backdrop against which her story is told. That extended family, that little house by the railroad tracks, the coupons, the pet pig and the suppers made up of melted butter, ketchup and "sketti." (threw up in my mouth just a little during the spaghetti episode I must admit.) It's horrific and fascinating. It's disgraceful and hilarious. It's demeaning and intriguing. And it's all on The LEARNING Channel. Wow...Uncle Ralph was right - there is something to be LEARNED from a MESS.

And when the old man with the named blueberry bushes died, he had his body cremated and his ashes sprinkled around those blueberry bushes. His widow sent a basket of the next crop of blueberries over to my aunt and uncle's house. For the first time in her life, Aunt Nell wasted food. "I threw them blueberries away! I ain't eating NOTHING that might have part of that old fool in it..."

Friday, September 14, 2012


There's an owl that shows up in the backyard every year when the weather's about to turn cool. It generally shows up around the time that football season starts. I don't know if it's the same owl, but the sentimental side of me likes to think so. Last night I heard it right at dusk while I was sitting on the patio enjoying one of my favorite summertime activities - watching the bats chase things that are flying around the streetlight below our house. Fall and summer, converging on the evening and our backyard at the same time. Only a brain as strange as mine could turn that into a train of thought that really goes nowhere.

A couple of weeks ago, I was working my last baseball game of the season and was then also struck by the changing of the seasons and how "thoughty" they make me. It sometimes seems I'm at my most content on summer evenings in a minor league baseball park, visiting with people I've come to know and adore and watching the great pastime as it was meant to be enjoyed - at a very grass roots/civic pride/this is the kind of thing that makes us American level. Every year I hate to see it end. The upside to it ending, though, is that it means football is here. As much as I romanticize about the sport of baseball, college football is religion, especially here in these southeastern United States. Perhaps it's the short duration of the season, the frantic "gotta enjoy it while it's here because in just a matter of weeks it's gone" state of mind. Perhaps it's the tradition and the pageantry. Perhaps it's genetic, as I can picture my father dozing off on Sunday afternoons during NFL games but sitting on the edge of his chair listening to college football on the radio. So maybe fall wins based on just on the fact that it's the backdrop to my favorite obsession?

I don't know, summer has two really important entries on its ledger - flip-flops and tomatoes. If I never had to put on another pair of socks in my life and could wear flip-flops everywhere I went I'd die a happy man. (Those that know me are grateful that we live in an area with just enough of a winter to make socks necessary some of the time. I truly have the world's ugliest feet, more specifically the world's ugliest toes.) And tomatoes...oh dear LORD tomatoes. If could eat a tomato sandwich with mayo, black pepper and arugula for lunch everyday for the rest of my time on this earth, this also would help me die with a smile on my face.

I tried to warn you that this train was going nowhere. There's something positively strange about someone who can wax poetic about flip-flops, bats, owls and tomatoes and find a way to work ugly toes into the discussion. Robert Louis Stevenson didn't waste quite as many words as I have trying to paint a similar picture:

"In the other gardens
And all up the vale,
From the autumn bonfires
See the smoke trail!

Pleasant summer over
And all the summer flowers,
The red fire blazes,
The grey smoke towers.

Sing a song of seasons!
Something bright in all!
Flowers in the summer,
Fires in the fall!"
("Autumn Fires")

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

"...and become as little children..."

We were sent home from work early that day. The world was going to hell and they weren't sure how safe we were in our tall glass building so they just sent us home. I decided to go by Mother's little apartment and make sure she wasn't terrified. Almost by the day, the Alzheimer's was manifesting itself in different ways and killing the mind and soul of the woman who raised us. I wasn't sure how she'd react to a day unlike any this country had ever experienced.

When I went in she was surprised to see me. She was still clear enough to know that I should've been in the office at that time of the day. I noticed that, sure enough, the images on her television were of burning towers and chaos. It didn't seem, though, that those images had rattled her in any way. Her face was still beaming with the joy that always showed itself when company arrived.

"What are you watching?" I asked her. She thought for a minute then said "well, I'm not real sure. That big building there is on fire and it's been on fire all morning. I'm real sorry it's on fire but I'm not sure why we have to watch it all day long." I was reaching for words. I remembered that one of the many symptoms of her bout with Alzheimer's was that often she could remember details of events decades old, but couldn't remember yesterday. So I gave that a try. "You've told me many times how scared y'all were that Sunday afternoon when Pearl Harbor was bombed. Do you remember that?" She nodded "Oh yes, we were terrified." I said "well, today is kind of like that day. Some people have hijacked planes and they're flying them into buildings, even the Pentagon." Her eyes got huge "Really???????" I said "yes, but I think that the immediate danger has they're just going to be searching for bodies for a long, long time." She said "well that's just awful."

Several moments of silence followed until she said "you know what I noticed? Judy Woodruff has the same stupid hairdo she had when she was on channel 5." Then she laughed. Then I laughed. Her mind had truly become a child's mind, and that day was a good to have a child's mind, unable to wrap itself around all the grief and horror. I took her hand and told her to come with me, I'd buy her a slaw dog. "Can I get onion rings, too?" I told her she could have whatever she wanted.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Old dogs and fish hooks....

"You can go anywhere you want, but don't go over there on that property. He's a mean old bastard, 'specially if he's been drinking. And his guinea hens bite." Uncle Ralph said "mean old bastard" in a very serious sounding way. And sounding very serious wasn't Uncle Ralph's forte. So I took heed to his warning. Not sure if I was more afraid of the man that lived on the property next to my uncle's lake house (that I'd never seen) or his attack guinea hens. My mother echoed the sentiment. She said the man who lived in the dirty, white trailer grown over with weeds and kudzu was "no-account white trash." Mama spoke ill of few folks so, again, I figured I needed to pay attention. On weeks spent at that lake house, I swam, I fished, I romped in the woods, I ate honeysuckle and tried to catch frogs and lightning bugs. But I stayed away from the mean old man's property.

I had the misfortune, though, of finding out how right Uncle Ralph was about the old man. I came in from fishing one afternoon and left my fishing pole on the porch while I went in to eat some lunch. After lunch, I planned on more fishing. But my pole was no longer on the porch. I looked and it was lying in the grass, halfway between the back porch and the outhouse. Then I noticed it was moving, slithering through the grass like a snake! Dumbfounded I ran off the porch to go chase my fishing pole. It was the most sickening sight of my life to realize it was being drug through the grass because - SOMEHOW - the hook on the end of my line had gotten hooked in some old dog's nose and the poor creature was trying to run itself loose! I chased. The dog ran. The more I chased the more it ran both in pain and terror. Finally I was able to coax it back to me and the poor old dog laid low to the ground, whimpering and shaking. Then it happened...the sound of birds, the sound of lake water lapping up against Uncle Ralph's dock and boat, the sound of cicadas grinding and singing, all these beautiful sounds of summer were shattered by a voice that sounded like gravel and liquor and Camel cigarettes. "What the hell are you doing to my dog??" It was the no-account white trash, mean old bastard, son of Satan that had previously lived only in legend, but now there he was walking towards me. I didn't notice that I had chased the dog far enough that I was now within a few feet of that nasty old trailer in the woods. My lips trembled but I fought the urge to cry. Even a small boy shouldn't show weakness when standing face to face with evil.

"Your dog got my fishing hook stuck in it's nose. I'm trying to figure out how to get it out without hurting him." Finally holding the poor dog, I realized the hook was through it's septum. The body of the hook was in one nostril. The point and the barb in the other. I mustered up all my courage and said "Do you have some needle-nosed pliers?" (because Uncle Ralph taught me that this was the painless way to get a hook out of your finger....snip it right behind the barb and then just back the hook out of your skin." The old man said "what in the hell you want with pliers? Come here dog!" The dog crawled over there to him, still dragging my pole. If I live to be 110, I'll never be able to forget what transpired next. The old man grabbed the end of the hook where it was tied to my line and just jerked it out with all his might. It ripped the dog's septum in two and the dog ran off yelping into the woods. I never saw it again. It was a right skittish dog anyway and I had the haunting notion that this probably wasn't the first time the mean old man had hurt him. So it never came back. And I damn sure never went anywhere near that old man's trailer again. But that dog's painful yelp was the worst sound ever to fall on this child's ears.

I sat by the big oak tree by the dirt road and cried. I don't know how long I sat there and cried. An hour? Two hours? Finally Mama came walking up the little drive calling me. "Timothy? Timothy?" "Tim" only went to "Timothy" if I was in trouble or if she was worried about me. She couldn't find me on the dock where I'd been catching and releasing Carp and Bluegill all day. She couldn't find me in the pile of wood I was trying to turn into a fort. So, for now, "Timothy" evoked concern. She became even more concerned when she saw that I was hiding and crying.

She couldn't get me to eat supper that night. She couldn't get me to fall asleep. Even a mother's warm touch and comforting words couldn't get the sound of that poor dog screaming out of my head. I wondered if it'd just run out into the dark woods and died. I wondered if it was now so afraid of people that it would just stay out in the woods and starve to death. I was at the age where one was trying to no longer be a little boy but I was not yet a teenager. So the humiliation of having my mother hold my hand while I cried only served to take me to an even lower rung of hell. I have many, many cherished memories of Uncle Ralph's lake house. That day wasn't one of them.

Fast forward to this morning. We were sitting on the patio and the two-legged lady of the house was brushing the other lady of the house (who has four legs.) The plan was for me trim her nails like I'd done many times before, using the comforting brushing as a diversion. It was a fine plan until the peace and quiet of a Sunday morning was kicked in the gut by a yelp quite similar to what I'd heard some 38 or 39 years ago in front of the mean old man's trailer. I had cut past the quick of one of the nails on her right front foot and blood was dripping on our patio. The blood dripped from her paw for a minute or two, until the pressure I was putting on it with a handful of napkins had blood doing what it's supposed to do and coagulating. A bite of cheese and a tummy rub and the world's sweetest Labrador Retriever was fine. However, the dummy who had snipped too close was a hot mess. I cried like a baby. Mama's comforting hand was replaced by my bride bringing me a cup of coffee and a bowl of the cheese grits. I don't think she was completely surprised by my reaction to hurting the dog - she knows I can't tolerate canine suffering of any kind. But she might've been surprised that I couldn't shake the whole episode...until I reminded her of my "dog meets fish hook trauma." I reckon, for the rest of my time here on planet earth, whenever I hear a dog's yelp the worst childhood memory of all rears it's ugly head along with it's gravely, Camel-cigarettes, liquored up voice. If there is a heaven and if I get there and if dogs really do go there, there's several dogs I want to track down and give a belly rub. Most of them I know by name. But I want to find that nameless one with the torn-up nose and tell it I'm really sorry that happened. I hope it will forgive me as quickly as the dog now lying at my feet has forgiven me.